I don’t have many kind things to say about the new “Criminal Minds” spin-off, “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior,” which debuts tomorrow night at 10 on CBS, so let me say one good thing up front.
In the first episode of the show, the team of FBI agents headed by Forest Whitaker’s Sam Cooper gets called in to deal with the abduction of a little white girl in a Cleveland suburb. As they’re making their initial canvass, Agent Beth Griffith (Janeane Garofalo) is approached by a black woman from the inner city who complains that her own daughter went missing a week earlier, and she didn’t receive any kind of huge police/FBI/media dragnet like this girl has.
That the show is in any way willing to touch on the disparity – both in real life and in fictional crime shows like this – in attention between crimes against white and black children is laudable, even if the way the matter is dealt with winds up being fairly trite and easy. (Hint: the black mother’s arrival is less a piece of social commentary than a plot point.) So that’s something.
As for the rest of “Suspect Behavior” – the most redundant spin-off title since “NCIS” (which, remember, was launched out of “JAG”) originally called itself “Navy NCIS” – it suffers from all the things that have kept me from having much use for the parent show all these years.
It’s at this point I note that “Criminal Mind” has many millions of fans who don’t have the problems with it that I do. To them, I will only say that “Suspect Behavior” is basically the same show, but other than Whitaker, it’s a much less interesting cast and collection of characters, with Garofalo particularly bad. (The line between “Janeane Garofalo playing a serious role” and “Janeane Garofalo parodying a serious role on ‘The Ben Stiller Show'” is so narrow as to be invisible.) You don’t need to read any further if you don’t want to.
There are plenty of procedural crime shows on network TV that I don’t have much interest in, but I don’t actively dislike most of them; they’re just not my cup of tea. “Criminal Minds,” though, bothers me, because it feels like it’s wallowing in human suffering in a way that most of those other shows don’t – and that includes “Law & Order: SVU,” whose stories usually take place after the horrible crime has been committed.
I watch an episode of the spin-off that features scene after scene of kidnapped little girls crying and pleading to go home, or an episode of the original in which a pair of alcoholic thrill-killers slaughter the occupants of one mini-mart after another, and it feels like the show takes way too much pleasure in showing you this imagery. The stuff where the FBI team sits around and tries to psychoanalyze the bad guy from afar is there to lend things an air of legitimacy, but it’s a cover. The crying and the begging and the people getting their eyeballs scooped out is what the show is mainly interested in – and since it’s been a successful enough formula to merit a spin-off, why wouldn’t it be?
There are ways to approach this subject matter that can feel smart and only somewhat exploitive – see “Silence of the Lambs,” or William Petersen in the first Hannibal Lecter movie, “Manhunter” – but it’s too easy to just groove on the spectacle of the serial killer genre, and whenever I’ve watched either “Criminal Minds” show, they’ve consistently done just that.
There are spin-offs that occasionally go deeper than the original, or do things in a different enough way to be interesting as their own thing. (I was usually fonder of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” in its early days than the concurrent seasons of the mothership, for instance.) But the CBS approach with “CSI,” “NCIS” and now “Criminal Minds” is very much an assembly-line one: if you liked the original, here’s more of the same. And the converse, at least in my case, is that I’m as likely to come back to “Suspect Behavior” as I am to return to the parent show at 9.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org